In Liverpool there’s just one game in town — soccer — but two teams just a mile apart – Los Angeles Times
Ian OâBrien stood outside Anfield, the refurbished home of the Liverpool Football Club, rubbing his ruddy hands together in an unsuccessful effort to ward off an early morning chill when a stranger approached.
âWhereâs Goodison Park?â the man asked.
âDonât swear in here, mate!â OâBrien snapped before turning away.
Goodison Park, you see, is the stadium used by Everton, Liverpoolâs chief rival. If Anfield is a cathedral â and OâBrien, a tour guide there, believes it is â then any mention of Everton on its grounds is like invoking Satan on Easter Sunday. The same holds true, in reverse, at Goodison Park, which sits on the north end of Walton Lane, less than a mile away.
Few sports rivalries as are passionate as the one between the Blues of Everton and the Reds of Liverpool, which will be renewed Saturday when the teams meet at Anfield. And part of that fervor comes from the fact the two soccer clubs have occupied stadiums on opposite ends of Stanley Park, a spacious greenspace of gardens and lakes, for 125 years.
âItâs incredible,â said Tim Howard, the U.S. national team goalkeeper who played 11 years for Everton. âYou do have some rivalries in U.S. sports like it â Bulls-Pistons late 1980s, something like that. But itâs not the same because itâs in the same city.â
The Bulls and Pistons, after all, were separated by 300 miles. The Yankees and Red Sox are 200 miles apart. Even UCLA and USC have 14 miles between them.
Liverpool and Everton are so close you can see one stadium from the other. On game days, they share the same parking lot. And that proximity not only fuels the passions of fans, it helps define this city of 478,000 perched on Britainâs west coast.
âMan itâs crazy,â said Howard. âItâs a close-knit community â¦ and the cityâs split. Thereâs no one family thatâs blue and one family thatâs red.
In English soccer a crosstown rivalry is called a âderbyâ â pronounced DAR-be â a term originally coined for an 18th century horse race, only to later become synonymous with any big sporting event. And few English sporting events are bigger than the Merseyside Derby, named for the river that runs through Liverpool.
Even Liverpoolâs most famous sons, the Beatles, werenât immune. Paul McCartney was said to be an Everton fan who attended games at Goodison as a boy, while John Lennon played a big role in getting former Liverpool forward Albert Stubbins included in the iconic cover for âSgt. Pepperâs Lonely Hearts Club Band.â (Heâs above and just to the left of Marlene Dietrich.)
Another former Liverpool player, Matt Busby, gets a shout out in the Beatlesâ 1969 song âDig It,â along with the BBC, B.B. King and Doris Day.
Everton and Liverpool have met 226 times since their first match in 1894 (a 3-0 Everton win), but for much of its existence, the rivarly was referred to as âthe friendly derby.â While supporters of other English soccer teams generally inherit a lifelong allegiance to one â and only one â club from their fathers and grandfathers, in the working-class neighborhoods surrounding Stanley Park people often cheered for both teams.
Phil Thompson, who grew up six miles outside Liverpool as a Reds fan before going on to play nearly 500 games for the team, remembers those days fondly.
âPeople used to go to both games. Theyâd go watch Everton on a Saturday; the following Saturday theyâd go watch Liverpool,â said Thompson, who coached at Liverpool. âSo many mixes of families. Brothers and sisters and dads could be Liverpudlian and the sons could be Evertonians because their uncle might have taken them to watch Everton.â
That camaraderie has waned over the last 25 years, turning what had been a family affair into a family feud, and Thompson blames Liverpoolâs success for the change. Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, Liverpool has finished in the top four in the standings 13 times, captured the Football Assn. Challenge Cup twice and won a Champions League title.
Everton, meanwhile, has finished as high as fourth in the league table just once, won one âFA Cup,â as the competition is known here, and has never advanced beyond the round of 16 in a major European competition.
And thatâs imbued Liverpool supporters with a certain arrogance and Everton fans with jealousy, splitting households as well as entire neighborhoods.
âItâs not friendly anymore,â Thompson says. âThereâs a new generation and I think maybe itâs fueled by social media. Itâs bitter.â
Thatâs since spread to the field, with referees issuing more red cards for violent play in the Merseyside Derby than in any other crosstown rivalry in the English Premier League era.
So while that edgy, even violent, form of sports boosterism known as hooliganism has largely faded from the English Premier League in recent years, tensions often run high at the Merseyside Derby, which is played twice a year, once in Goodison Park and once in Anfield.
Two years ago local police, fearing violence, took legal action to try to move the kickoff at Goodison Park to earlier in the day â to give people less time to drink before the game. They backed off after Everton officials agreed to segregate the seating areas, keeping rival fans â including those who lived in the same house â from sitting next to one another.
And the first meeting this season, at Everton in December, was marred by several rough tackles on the field and a lit flare thrown from the stands at Liverpoolâs Sadio Mane, who scored the lone goal. (He wasnât hit.)
Soon even the stadiums will be kept apart. Everton announced plans last week to move out of the iconic-but-crumbling Goodison Park to a new home on the Liverpool docks, two miles to the west.
John Henry, Liverpoolâs American owner and also owner of the Boston Red Sox, renovated and modernized Anfield last summer, swelling attendance in the main stand by more than 8,000 seats and building an exclusive directorâs box, updates that could add millions to the teamâs bottom line each season.
Those are options that arenât available to Everton since its current 39,571-seat stadium, squeezed tight into a residential neighborhood, cannot grow beyond its current footprint in whatâs known as the âBlue Mile.â The team, owned by British Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri, is scheduled to abandon Goodison, the oldest purpose-built soccer stadium in the world, for the new 50,000-seat home by 2020.
But when Everton moves and fans will no longer be able to see one stadium from the other, sportswriter Chris Beesley, who covers the Blues for the Liverpool Echo, doesnât see the rivalry changing much.
âThe derby,â he said, âis going to be ferocious wherever it is played.â